As we turn again to the beginning of our Torah, I want to address the question of, “Is it true?”
For me the stories in the Torah represent a religious or poetic truth–not necessarily historical or scientific truth. That type of truth is why I cherish the Torah, place it lovingly in a special ark and even hold it up proudly after I read it to proclaim in Hebrew and English: “This is the Torah which Moses gave to the children of Israel at the command of God.”
For example, if I am walking through a meadow, and I say with a sigh as I gaze at my beloved, “Your eyes are like two beautiful pools,” I do not mean that I may dive in to take a swim. Neither, though, am I lying. I am expressing a profound type of truth that wells up from the depths of my soul. (This example is found in Leonard Gardner, et.al., Genesis: The Teacher’s Guide, published in 1966 by the United Synagogue Commission on Jewish Education, on pages 18-19.)
As an example, let us consider the story of Creation. When the rabbis studied the story they did not ask scientific or historical questions like, “Did this really happen this way?” Rather they asked questions like “Why did God choose to begin the account of creation (I.e. why does the first word of the Torah begin) with the letter Bet (ב,the second letter of the alphabet rather than Aleph, א, the first)?
They answered that just as the top and bottom of the letter are closed, so too are secrets of the essence of God above and of what happens when a person is laid to rest in the ground below. Just as the back of the letter is closed, so are God’s actions before the world was created closed to our knowledge. But the front of the letter is open! That teaches us that we should concentrate our efforts and our energies on that which is open to us–this world and its mysteries.
In other words, one truth the rabbis derived from the story of creation is that the mysteries of what happened before the world was created, what happens after we die, and a complete knowledge of God’s ways are beyond us and should not be our main concerns. Living lives of purpose and meaning and making this world as good as we can while we are here—these, the rabbis urged, should be the object of our efforts. (See Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 1:10 and/or Eugene Mihaly’s book A Song to Creation, published by Hebrew Union College press in 1975, pages 38-41)
Going a bit further, then the truth of the Story of Creation lies not in the contention that it happened as written. Rather the truth to be gleaned is that Creation was not an accident, that God is the initiator of Creation, that Creation is meaningful and purposeful and therefore our lives can have meaning and purpose. Furthermore as creatures created in God’s image–we human beings–not the tiger or the Rhinoceros– are in charge of and responsible for this world and what happens to it. It is an awesome responsibility. The final element of truth to the story for Jewish thought is that it includes the idea of Shabbat. If God can rest, we too can rest and reflect on the meaning and purpose of our lives.